The best books featuring young, precocious characters who have physical or mental anomalies

Who am I?

I’m a fiction writer and visual artist. My volunteer work with Amnesty International on a documentary photography project introduced me to 15 people from all over the world. During that time, I volunteered at a camp in Maine for kids who had life-threatening illnesses. I met a boy who had Progeria. Those two experiences fueled the writing of What Ben Franklin Would Have Told Me. I’m interested in characters who don’t fit the traditional mold and have to carve their own paths. People who are born with life-threatening diseases, imperfections, handicaps, brilliance. I see a kind of bravery in these characters, and in all they have to do to overcome the odds.  

I wrote...

What Ben Franklin Would Have Told Me

By Donna Gordon,

Book cover of What Ben Franklin Would Have Told Me

What is my book about?

What Ben Franklin Would Have Told Me explores the story of Lee, a vibrant thirteen-year-old boy who is facing premature death from Progeria (a premature aging disease); his caretaker Tomás, a survivor of Argentina’s Dirty War, who's searching for his missing wife, who was pregnant when they were both "disappeared;" and Lee's single mother, Cass, overwhelmed by love for her son and the demands of her work as a Broadway makeup artist. When a mix-up prevents Cass from taking Lee on his "final wish" trip to Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia to pursue his interest in the life of Ben Franklin, Tomás – who has discovered potential leads to his family in both cities – offers to accompany Lee on the trip. One flees memories of death and the other hurtles inevitably toward it. 

The books I picked & why

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

By Mark Haddon,

Book cover of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Why this book?

This book features 15-year-old Christopher Boone of Swindon, England, who has Asperger’s and is considered to be an autistic savant. He has an incredible knowledge of math and factual information, and is unable to tell a lie. He struggles to understand the nuances of human emotion. He sets out to solve the mystery of a neighbor’s murdered dog, conjuring Sherlock Holmes along the way. While the novel is set up as a detective story, important questions about life, love, and human motives are brought to the surface. ''Usually people look at you when they're talking to you. I know that they're working out what I'm thinking, but I can't tell what they're thinking. It is like being in a room with a one-way mirror in a spy film,'' Christopher says. He suggests that metaphor is a form of lying, pointing out that very few people actually have skeletons in their closets or apples in their eyes.

I loved Christopher’s innocence and intelligence, his methodical and logical way of going about solving the mystery of who killed the dog. His questioning mind brings new wisdom into the story along the way. This book is written in a kind of straightforward language that has crossover potential to YA. In both his awkwardness and sophistication, Christopher is an unforgettable character. Reading this book taught me that it’s just important to think about what a character says, as much as he leaves out.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

By Jonathan Safran Foer,

Book cover of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Why this book?

Oskar Shell is the 9-year-old narrator living in New York City at the time of 9/11. His father has just died in the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11th,  2001. He describes his feeling of depression at the loss of his father “as wearing heavy boots.” Shortly afterwards, in his father's closet, Oskar finds a key in an envelope inside a vase that he accidentally broke; in the key shop, he finds the name Black and thinks this has something to do with the key. He sets out to contact every person in New York City with the last name of Black in the hope of finding the lock that belongs to the key his father left behind, creating a binder with mementos of his journey.

Though it’s not clear how he manages to be so independent at this young age, along the way Oskar encounters an array of characters, among them his 103-year-old neighbor, Mr. Black, a former war correspondent, and “the renter,” a mysterious character who lives with Oskar’s grandmother. Oskar’s shock at the loss of his father fuels the poignancy of his language and inquiry. He’s able to use language to express the inversions and inside-out emotions that accompany those feelings. The language is entertaining, musical, and startling: The novel begins with Oskar’s voice,  “What about a teakettle? What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up with me? I could invent a teakettle that reads in Dad’s voice, so I could fall asleep…”

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving

By Jonathan Evison,

Book cover of The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving

Why this book?

Trevor Conklin is a teenager in the advanced stages of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and is wheelchair-bound.  His new caretaker, Ben Benjamin, has lost his family to an accident (the details of which we don’t learn until the end of the book) and is financially broke. He has taken a 28-hour course on caregiving at a local church and afterward is hired by Trevor’s single mother to dress, bathe, and do everything that Trevor can’t do for himself. At first, there’s a lot of friction between Ben and Trevor, but after a while they become close and begin to trust one another. Together, they go on a road trip from Washington state to Utah to visit Trevor’s dad, the two haven’t seen one another for years. Along the way, they pick up some hitchhikers and Trevor has an encounter with a young woman. Alongside the road trip, are several flashbacks to Ben’s earlier life with his wife and family.  His wife is trying to get him to sign divorce papers and he continues to evade her until the very end when we learn how he was responsible for his children’s death in a car accident. The two threads of the story run parallel—Trevor’s illness and ironic humor, and Ben’s refusal to let go of his ghosts and guilt. In the end of this novel, each reaches a kind of peace temporarily. 

Motherless Brooklyn

By Jonathan Lethem,

Book cover of Motherless Brooklyn

Why this book?

On the surface, this book reads like a detective novel. Lionel Essrog suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome. An orphan raised in a boys’ home in Brooklyn, when the story opens, Lionel is in the employ of a small-time gangster, Frank Minna, who has hired Lionel and three other troubled boys to staff his quasi limo service/detective agency. When Minna is abducted during a stake-out in Manhattan and turns up stabbed to death in a dumpster, Lionel makes it his mission to find his killer. So much of the pleasure of reading this book comes from the plot twists and the inventions and reinventions of language. Lionel’s name sometimes comes out as “Larval Pushbug” or “Unreleiable Chessgrub” and his behavior includes compulsive reaching, tapping, grabbing, and kissing urges. For me, the story falters some towards the end, but the freshness of the language and unpredictability of Lionel’s character make it a very entertaining read. It’s another great story in which a character who appears destined to fail, winds up triumphant in the end.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

By Muriel Barbery, Alison Anderson (translator),

Book cover of The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Why this book?

Renée is the concierge in an elegant Paris hotel. Widowed and in her 50s, she calls herself “short, ugly and plump,” a working-class nobody. She takes refuge in aesthetics and ideas but refuses to let her knowledge show. Renée’s friend in the building is 12-year-old Paloma, beyond precocious, who feels so let down by the meaningless in the world that she plans to commit suicide. Both characters are philosophers of sorts.  “Beauty consists of its own passing, just as we reach for it,” says Paloma. In the end, they rescue one another from despair and loneliness. The experience of the book that was so satisfying for me, is the exchange of ideas about life and happiness, which are expressed more as a kind of philosophical discourse rather than a traditionally plotted novel. The ideas, expressed so intelligently and poetically, kept me going.

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